The Curmudgeon


Saturday, February 26, 2005

A Man (Cheloviek)

by A S Gruskov
Translated by Antonia W Bouis

(Kiev: Vremya, 1989; New York: Random House, 2002)

Reviewed by Samuel Grimsnipe

This is not the first book to be published by Anatoli Gruskov, but it is the first novel. Admittedly, there are those who contend that calling it a novel is stretching a point; but, its undoubted oddness granted, it remains a book-length prose work concerned with fictional events; that, so far as we are concerned, will suffice.

Gruskov's ten previous works have all been in the realm of political economy, and the reader of A Man may easily be forgiven, having taken this book from the fiction shelves and upon opening it for the first time, for wondering whether the author has indeed shifted to different ground. Is Gruskov simply, and wisely, attempting to write a novel in keeping with what he knows best, or has he something more ambitious and subversive in mind? Is he, perhaps, trying to widen the audience for discourses on political economy through the cunning device of disguising his latest lecture as a work of art? But art today, after all, is properly appreciated by rather fewer people than economics, and mere curiosity value sells far more poorly than is generally imagined. Gruskov is unlikely to widen his readership with that sort of gambit; quite the opposite, in fact, as part of the readership he already has may desert him out of pique at his defection to a different genre.

A personal project, then, undertaken without reference to public opinion or bank balance? That seems a rather more plausible explanation; but there still remains the question of the project's goal, personal or otherwise. To break the mould; to overstep on purpose the boundary which separates fiction from non-fiction, which so many of Gruskov's ilk so frequently overstep by accident? Or perhaps all the author really wants is to show us that economists, too, have souls.

If this is indeed the case, and if he has succeeded, he has done so more through the fact of the book's publication than through anything in the book itself. The approach of A Man to its subject matter is as chilly as that of the graphs, plots and statistical tables with which all Gruskov's books are littered, this one included; this is not a story, nor an examination, nor even a post-mortem, of a human being; it is a dissection, performed by someone who has neither respect nor disgust, nor even curiosity, but knows very well what he will find and seeks, with the same disinterested neutrality, only to instruct others in the knowledge. Whether Gruskov adopts this manner by habit or by design, and whether in the end it matters, is for the reader to decide.

The book is divided into seventy short chapters, which increase in length and detail towards the end, and which alternate with the inevitable documents and statistics. A casual glance through the pages gives the impression of a report by some zealous private detective: between chapters one and two, which taken together occupy about a page, is what purports to be the protagonist's birth certificate, while between chapters two and three we find a table of his grades through primary school set against the national average of the time; between chapters three and four his secondary school grades are presented in similar fashion; and so on.

The chapters themselves are all in the first person, each one told by a different narrator whose name forms the chapter heading, all of the narrators having in common their association with the man of the book's title, the subject of Gruskov's dissection. At the beginning, the associations are of the slightest, and the narrators' testimonies correspondingly short; the very first takes up fourteen lonely-looking lines set in the centre of page seven, and describes the narrator's experience of passing one man on the street one day and noticing about him nothing more remarkable than she noticed about any of the hundreds of other people whom she passed on that same street during that same day. The second chapter describes something closer to what one would call an encounter; the narrator in this case is a tramp who received a donation from the plump hand of a middle-aged man in a business suit - a man who we learn only gradually is the same person to whom pertain the birth certificate, and also the school reports, records of job interviews, and so forth, with which the text is strewn. From this point the testimonies work their way carefully through the man's former schoolmates, his teachers, his first employer, his colleagues at work, and finally to his closest friends and immediate family; but the man himself is never directly heard from.

As might be expected from an author of Gruskov's background, the book is superbly organised, the narrative pieces and tabled documents carefully orchestrated for maximum impact. The order of the factual documents is diametrically opposed to that of the narratives; they begin with the most personal, the most intimate records, like the school report, and progress steadily outwards, like a film camera trained on a single face, which gradually pulls away to lose it in a crowd of others. Only for the space of five or six episodes in the middle of the book, does the individual emerge in the documents to more or less the same degree as in the narratives; before then, the narratives are remote from him and the documents close to him, while afterwards the roles are reversed as we begin to hear from friends and family rather than from strangers and casual acquaintances, and the documents we see become more akin to national surveys than to records of individual achievement.

The more personal of the documents, those nearer the beginning, make it clear that Gruskov's protagonist is a representative of that fictional, yet extremely helpful and totally universal clique, the Average Man. The author does not go so far as to endow him with three-quarters of a car and two and a half children; but he comes fairly near the mark. The man is a middle-aged office worker, married with a daughter, averagely intelligent, averagely prosperous, and averagely overweight; all this information is summed up in little numbers encapsulating the lifestyle, income and physical proportions of our hero, which are then checked against little numbers encapsulating the Average Man, and which in all cases prove either very similar or identical.

Having demonstrated, by the end of the book's first half, that his subject is an average man in all respects, Gruskov goes on to demonstrate in the second half the achievements of an average lifetime. He begins in a relatively inoffensive vein: the amount of food an average man consumes in his lifetime; the amount of oxygen he breathes; the amount of material waste he produces through the use of his body and the machines which cater to it. To begin with, these facts look like something out of a trivia game: did you know that the average man shaves thirty feet of whiskers off his face during one lifetime? But soon the figures take on a less human aspect: between chapters fifty-three and fifty-four, for example, are statistics showing the amount of paper used by the average corporation in a single year; this figure is then divided by the average number of people employed by such corporations, and the result is presented as the amount of paper used by an average single worker in one such corporation. It is left to the reader to make the connection between these increasingly impersonal facts and figures, and the man about whom he is reading in the increasingly personal chapters in between.

From about chapter sixty to the end, the documents are both impersonal and unsettling. The last few sets of statistics detail the achievements of an average lifetime in their most abstract form: the ultimate origins of what has been produced, the ultimate destination of what has been rejected. Gruskov gives us the quantity of sewage which an average lifetime contributes to the water of the Earth's seas; the quantity of smoke which must be pumped into the atmosphere in order to keep the average man cozy; the number of trees which must be felled in order to provide him with the paper he uses on behalf of the company that employs him. We are given the number of livelihoods lost through industrial antics in the Third World; the number of homes lost through natural disasters aggravated by the "over-utilisation" of natural resources; the number of lives lost through wars caused by the developed world taking what it wants from the undeveloped, and leaving the natives to fight over the scraps. And again, these figures are divided by the number of persons who make use of the purloined resources, thus eventually leading the precise number of deaths, from war, famine, disease and flooding, through which the average man gains his creature comforts.

In the last five narrative sections, whose respective speakers are the man's parents, his daughter, his closest friend and his wife, we find the use to which all the above has been put. The man works to keep himself alive, to support his parents and to bring up his family, and all of them express their gratefulness through one platitude or another; but although these last five have known him far longer and more intimately than any of the other narrators in the book, not one of them has anything substantial to add to what has already been said. If all seventy sections of prose had been gathered together to describe, say, a book instead of a human being, chapter one would have revealed the wording of the title, chapter five the names of the author and publisher, and chapter ten the subject of the cover illustration, the hues and details of which would then have been described, from ever closer viewpoints, through all the subsequent chapters, while the book being described remained shut, its theme, plot and style completely unexplored, except as far as the cover revealed them. The reader observes the protagonist of A Man as one observes a portrait depicting the play of light and shadow on a face, rather than the face itself; instead of providing more light to see by, the successive chapters merely increase the magnification on what can already be seen. If A Man is a portrait, it is the portrait of a man in a dim room, with much of his face completely obscured; the longer the audience stares, the clearer become those parts which can be seen, as the onlookers' eyes grow accustomed to the gloom; but the shadow is so deep that it can never be penetrated at all. In the same way, the gestures and actions of people, like titles and illustrations on the cover of a book, generally reveal little or nothing as to what is behind them, whether to beggars in the street while making a casual donation, or to their own wives in twenty years of marriage.

By thus reversing the conventional device of exploring a man from within himself, through his reactions to others, and instead exploring his own protagonist from within others, through their reactions to him, Gruskov might have highlighted beautifully this gap between intention and action, the terrible gulf which lies between the possession and the expression of a personality. But in this respect, because Gruskov has chosen, for the best of reasons, to deny his protagonist the opportunity of speaking for himself, the book succeeds only partly. The author has done very well with his juxtaposition of subjective narrative with cold statistical fact, an excellent idea which could have been put to quite harrowing use; but unfortunately Gruskov remains an economist and not a novelist, and he therefore relies too little on the reader's emotions and too much, instead, on the reader's logical abilities. As a result, the protagonist of A Man is too easy to reject; it is too easy to escape the book's intended indictment of oneself, through simply invoking one's own divergences from the mean. Logical thinking would indicate that an average is a synthesis of, and therefore a representation of, everybody including oneself; but in a novel, logic alone is not enough. By keeping his protagonist silent, Gruskov presumably intended to avoid prejudicing the issue, to keep readers from sympathising with the man while making it impossible for them to avoid seeing themselves in him. Gruskov expected his readers to look upon this man, to add up the gains and subtract the losses, to come up with a minus and cry mea culpa; but one cannot have it both ways. The average reader is hard enough put to see himself in a character drawn up for him in three dimensions, with colour and sound, without being required to identify with a phantom whose visage is shot through with mathematics.

The author has attempted to guarantee that no-one could possibly escape his meaning, by keeping his central character silent, and by averaging out that character's every quality so as to enable as many readers as possible - indeed, every reader without exception - to identify with him to some extent. And this is the book's tragic flaw, for although an average incorporates every individual of its own type, the individual does not, conversely, incorporate an average. Gruskov's Average Man has no independent existence outside other men; and while his protagonist's silence admirably demonstrates this mathematical fact, it also provides his readers with an immediate, obvious, and easy escape route. In attempting to portray everyone at once, Gruskov has portrayed no-one at all. No individual can possibly be either everyone in the world, or absolutely nobody. The protagonist of A Man will touch no chord in most of those who read about him, because he is both at once.


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